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As a public speaking coach, nervous speakers regularly tell me “I think I’m going to pass out” or “I’m feeling sick to my stomach.”
And while they never do faint or vomit, I have wondered what would happened if they did.
Well I don’t need to wonder anymore. Because I did both –fainted and vomited – in front of a client during a presentation.
And I survived. In fact, it turned out to be a great presentation that taught me some nice lessons about connecting with audiences.
It happened about three hours into a workshop my company was delivering to a large chemical manufacturer. I had started to feel a little queasy about two hours earlier as I was speaking during a different part of the program. I ignored the discomfort, attributing it to some funny tasting Greek soup I had for lunch.
But the queasiness intensified. Finally, I was giving feedback to one of the participants when – and now I’m only reporting what I was told by witnesses since I don’t remember this part – I started babbling nonsense.
My students told me they wondered if I was kidding around. I do have fun during the workshops and have been known to horse around to keep things light.
But I wasn’t kidding. And two of my students grabbed me to keep me from falling and hitting my head. The next thing I knew, they were holding me up as I vomited the contents of my stomach – again I’m pretty sure it was that Greek soup – into a garbage can.
After throwing up, I felt fine. We took a break. I cleaned up. And soon enough we were back at it. When I returned to resume the program, I received a loud ovation. Afterwards, many came up to me and connected with me personally, asking about me and thanking me for the great program.
The episode taught me several things.
Build a Relationship with Your Listeners Before the Crisis
When the workshop was beginning – long before I fainted and threw up – I worked the room, asking people questions about themselves. “Where are you from?” If they say they’re from Columbus Ohio, I might say “Does that make you an Ohio State fan?”
It is general schmoozing. But it serves an important purpose for any speaker. It starts the relationship with the audience on a positive note and gets the listeners “on your side” from the beginning.
So if something unexpected happens like your projector fails, or you forget what to say, or you vomit uncontrollably into a garbage can, then the audience will remember that they like you and they’ll be forgiving.
And that’s what happened with me. I had built a strong enough relationship with the audience for them to sense that they needed to jump in and grab me.
Having a Sense of Humor About Yourself Builds the Relationship
“So before I get started, I want to ask you guys one question. As I was throwing up, how was my eye contact?”
The listeners roared. And everything went great from there.
When you’re willing to laugh at yourself, people like you.
I once took a class in comedy from Jeff Justice, a great teacher of standup here in Atlanta. He said that the best humor is self-directed.
Who knew that passing out would be such great material?
Being Vulnerable Builds The Relationship
I once helped with a senior executive prepare for a speech about her battle with breast cancer. As part of her presentation, she told a rather graphic story about her double mastectomy. Parts were difficult to hear.
But her “warts and all” story earned her a standing ovation. Afterwards, she was in line for an hour giving hugs to her listeners. Her willingness to be vulnerable built a strong relationship with her audience.
I’m not saying that you should intentionally get sick in front of an audience to build a relationship. However, I do think that many people try very hard to come across as perfect, speaking in perfect sentences, and moving their hands just right.
But audiences don’t want perfection. They want a connection with another person. So if you don’t want to throw up in front of your audience (and I don’t recommend it) you might want to find ways to show your vulnerability perhaps by simply telling revealing stories.
You’ll be surprised at how you’ll connect with the audience.